Courage is plentiful. In fact, it’s all around us, writes Robert Biswas-Diener, Ph.D, a positive psychology researcher and founder of Positive Acorn, in his latest book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver.
And it doesn’t just happen on the battlefield: It also happens in the boardroom, on a bike ride and at the grocery store, he says. Courage lives in the everyday and helps us lead more fulfilling lives.
According to Biswas-Diener, courage “allows you to pursue the life you want, to overcome obstacles that hold you back from living a full life, and to put your core values into action, and it also helps and elevates others along the way.” It also helps you have better relationships and do better at work, he says.
In his book Biswas-Diener defines courage as “the willingness to act toward a moral or worthwhile goal despite the presence of risk, uncertainty and fear.”
The Courage Quotient
According to Biswas-Diener, courage is made up of two processes: Your ability to manage fear and your willingness to act. The “courage quotient” is your willingness to act divided by your fear. So people with the highest quotients can deal with their anxiety and take action.
Learning to be Courageous
While genetics may leave some of us a bit braver than others, courage can be learned. Biswas-Diener cites the work of Cynthia Pury and her colleagues, who separated courage into general and personal categories. General courage is how we typically picture bravery, such as soldiers saving lives or citizens exposing illegal acts. Personal courage is unique to each person.
Each of us, Biswas-Diener says, has the capacity to face our fears. He interviewed 50 people from all walks of life – a group he termed the Courage 50 – and discovered that courage is a habit, a practice and a skill.
Biswas-Diener shows readers how to manage fears and boost willingness to act. Below, you’ll find several of these tips. (The first three are specifically for minimizing fear.)
1. Reduce uncertainty.
Uncertainty holds us back from being brave. It’s the fear of the unknown — whether we’ll succeed or fail or get hurt or not.
But courage doesn’t have to mean taking random risks; it can mean taking calculated risks. To do so, it’s important to collect data and expose yourself to anxiety-provoking situations.
One of the Courage 50 participants, Philippa White, left a good marketing job in London to start her own business in Brazil. This is definitely a brave thing to do, where uncertainty seems inherent. But this wasn’t a decision she made lightly. While still working, White spent a full year researching and preparing for her business. She explained that she never goes “into a situation blind.”
One of the most effective strategies for reducing anxiety is exposure (think exposure therapy). Research has shown that if you expose someone to their feared stimulus – like snakes – in stages, over time, their fear or anxious reactions will decrease. (It’s important to be in a relaxed state during exposure.)
When our bodies feel fear, we start churning out negative, disaster-focused, irrational thoughts. Thankfully, though, because fear lives in our bodily sensations – boosting blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension – we can effectively work to turn it off. Relaxation techniques are especially helpful. For instance, Biswas-Diener talks about progressive muscle relaxation.
3. Get angry.
According to Biswas-Diener, the only emotion that can overcome fear is anger. He refers to anger as “the emotion of courage.” Anger propels us to act and often squashes self-doubts, he says.
He cites studies by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner that found that angry participants were more likely to want to take risks, see themselves as in control and feel optimistic that a positive outcome would occur.
But the problem with anger is that it can inhibit clear thinking. To use anger wisely, Biswas-Diener suggests focusing on your fundamental values. “…You can work yourself into a courageous mindset by focusing on the ways in which your most precious values are being trampled.”
4. Avoid the bystander effect.
The “bystander effect” is one of the obstacles to taking action. It means that the more people present, the less likely they are to intervene to help or accomplish a task. Individuals just assume that everyone else will act. Much research has looked into this phenomenon.
Psychologists have discovered five steps that contribute to people being willing to help others:
- paying attention and noticing a problem;
- realizing that the situation is urgent;
- assuming personal responsibility;
- knowing how to help; and
- making the decision to help.
While there’s no specific research to support it, Biswas-Diener also believes that viewing courage “as a series of small decisions will, itself, boost your willingness to act.”
To learn more about courage, check out Joe Wilner’s interview with Robert Biswas-Diener at Adventures in Positive Psychology.